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Then in 1973, the last remaining descendent of the Pequots to live on the tribal reservation, Elizabeth George Plouffe, passed away, but not before imparting advice to her grandson Richard “Skip” Haywood: “Hold onto the land.” These words would manifest themselves into an almost thirty year legal and political drama that would lead Hayward and his relatives to recreate the Pequot tribe and become the richest Indians in history. How it happened is the subject of Brett Duval Fromson’s Hitting the Jackpot. The culmination of a three-year investigation, Fromson uncovers a labyrinthine tale of legal maneuverings, back room political dealings, and ethnic reinvention. Fromson details the step-by-step process by which today’s Pequots gained tribal recognition, hired top lawyers to claim thousands of acres of land, exploited a state law meant for church yard sales to gain the right to open Foxwoods, now a $1.2 billion dollar a year operation, and distilled the barest traces of Pequot lineage into a full-fledged tribe with over 600 new tribal members, a yearly pow-wow that offers the biggest cash prizes in America and a $250 million museum, one of the costliest in American history.
As controversy over Indian casino gambling sweeps across the United States, Hitting the Jackpot reveals the true story of how the Mashantucket Pequots of Connecticut became the richest Indian tribe in history.
The first Puritans migrated from Massachusetts Bay Colony to Connecticut Colony in 1635 and within two years were at war with the Pequot Indians, the dominant tribe in the region. The Pequots waged a guerrilla war against the Puritan settlements, and the English retaliated with punitive strikes on Pequot villages. The main casualties were civilians-elderly men, women, and children. In the spring of 1637, the Pequots raided Wethersfield, one of the three English settlements along the Connecticut River. Three women and six men were killed, and two young girls were kidnapped.
The colony's leaders met in Hartford and decided to launch a counteroffensive, having already lost more than thirty dead out of a total population of 250. Faced with a superior Pequot population-about three thousand, according to modern estimates-and surrounded by other Indian tribes of uncertain loyalties, the English chose as their military commander a professional soldier named Captain John Mason. Though not a Puritan, Mason was a veteran of the religious wars of the early seventeenth century between Catholic Spain and the Protestants of northern Europe. Tall, powerfully built, and a proven leader in the field, Mason was given a hastily cobbled militia of ninety men. They were joined by seventy Indian warriors under the command of Uncas, chief of the nearby Mohegan tribe, which was already at war with the Pequots.
Mason's motley expeditionary force boarded three small ships on Wednesday, May 20, 1637, for a trip down the Connecticut River to the military garrison at Saybrook, where the river met Long Island Sound. On the way, the Mohegans disembarked, preferring to walk rather than travel in ships that constantly ran aground in the river's low water. The Mohegans skirmished along the way with Pequot war parties but arrived intact as a fighting force at Saybrook. Mason was impressed with the Mohegans' fighting spirit. However, other members of the English expedition doubted their mettle. To test the Mohegans' loyalty, Mason ordered them to track and capture, dead or alive, a small war party of Pequots seen nearby. The Mohegans killed four Pequots and brought a fifth warrior back alive. They lashed the captured warrior-who dared them to do their worst-to a post, tied a rope to one of his legs, and pulled him apart. An Englishman finally put a bullet through the Pequot's head to end the torture.
Mason was under orders to strike the main Pequot fortified village, but en route he decided against a frontal assault, noting that the Pequot fort was likely to be on alert and well defended. Instead, he chose to withdraw from the area, sail east to what is today Rhode Island, and then march back west, surprising the Pequots from the rear. Mason was initially opposed by those soldiers in his force who felt a direct attack on the main Pequot fort was the quickest way to achieve victory. It was only after a minister accompanying the expedition announced that he had received word from God endorsing Mason's proposal that the captain was able to proceed with his plan. Mason sent home those who still doubted his leadership and replaced them with professional soldiers from the garrison at Saybrook.
On Friday, May 29, his small force sailed east toward Rhode Island, which, as planned, led the Pequots to assume that Mason was giving up. Instead, Mason's ships landed in Narragansett territory, recruited several hundred of that tribe's warriors, and quick-marched back into Pequot territory. The weather was exceptionally warm that May, and the English soldiers with their heavy metal armor, leather boots, and matchlock guns labored in the extreme heat. From his Mohegan and Narragansett scouts, Mason learned that the two largest Pequot camps were too far apart for him to attack simultaneously with his small force. He decided to concentrate the attack on the nearer of the two, a hilltop fort overlooking the Mystic River.
The English and their Indian allies pitched camp two miles northeast of the Pequot fort. "The Rocks were our Pillows; yet Rest was pleasant," Mason recorded later. "The Night proved comfortable being clear and Moon Light: We appointed our Guards and placed our Sentinels at some distance; who heard the Enemy Singing at the Fort, who continued that Strain until Midnight, with great Insulting and Rejoicing, as we were afterwards informed: they seeing our Pinnaces sail by them some Days before, concluded we were afraid of them and durst not come near them; the Burthen of their Song tending to that purpose."
The English rose before daybreak on Friday, June 5, praying together to God for victory. They climbed quietly up the hill to the fort, where Mason divided them into two forces, sending one to the south entrance of the fort, while he led a second force to the north entrance. Mason and his soldiers advanced to within twenty feet of the Pequots' wooden palisade before an Indian dog caught their scent and barked. A Pequot warrior cried out, "Owanux/Owanux! [Englishmenl Englishmen!]"
Mason and his soldiers rushed into the fort, pushing through a thorny brush pile intended to block the entrance. Once inside the oval-shaped fortification, they formed ranks and let go a volley of musket fire down the main lane. Frightened Pequots remained in their homes. Mason forced his way into one of the dwellings and killed several Pequot warriors with his sword. A fierce battle ensued. Many Pequots were killed, but Mason's force was outmanned. Fearful of losing a protracted fight, Mason shouted to his men, "We must burn them." He seized a firebrand, entered a house constructed of tree bark draped over wooden saplings, and set the dwelling afire. Within minutes, the entire fort was engulfed in a hellish inferno.
The screams of Pequot women and children mingled with the roar of English muskets and the triumphant shouts of the Mohegans and Narragansetts. Some Pequots perished in the flames without attempting to escape; others rushed directly into the flames, either deliberately or in panic. Many warriors fought amid the conflagration until their bowstrings cracked and were rendered useless. Still other Pequot fighters gathered outside the fort and shot their arrows until cut down by musket volleys. About forty of the boldest rushed out and attempted to force their way through the English lines. Only a few escaped. Most were struck down by English swords or Mohegan and Narragansett arrows, tomahawks, and war clubs. In little more than an hour, close to four hundred Pequot men, women, and children were killed. Seven were taken prisoner, and seven escaped. Only two Englishmen died, and twenty were wounded.
To Mason's way of thinking, the hand of God had been at work: "Thus were they now at their Wit's End, who not many Hours before exalted themselves in their great Pride," he wrote. "Threatening and resolving the utter Ruin and Destruction of all the English, Exulting and Rejoycing with Songs and Dances; But God was above them, who laughed at his Enemies and the Enemies of his People to Scorn, making them as a fiery Oven: Thus were the Stout Hearted spoiled, having slept their last Sleep, and none of their Men could find their Hands: Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathens, filling the Place with dead Bodies!"
Following the victory at Mystic, the English hunted down the remnants of the tribe and handed over any survivors to the Mohegans and Narragansetts as spoils of war. A small number of Pequots were also sold into slavery in the Caribbean or indentured as servants to English families in Connecticut. In 1666, the Pequots under the control of the Mohegan tribe were given a two-thousand-acre reservation in what is today Ledyard, Connecticut. Those overseen by the Narragansett were given a reservation in nearby North Stonington. The days of the Pequots as a major force in southern New England appeared to have ended forever.
As a child growing up in the 1890s on the reservation in Ledyard-whittled down over the centuries by land sales and transfers to about two hundred acres-Eliza George heard a somewhat different version of the events of 1637. As one of her half sisters recalled,
My mother and grandmother told me how the Indians made a blockade to protect the women and children when they were fighting against the settlers. They said that John Mason came with a regiment of soldiers. First, they didn't know what to do, whether to burn them out with their torches. ... They went to the Baptist Church there in Old Mystic and talked. There were four or more ministers that were Protestant ministers to ask them if it would be all right to do that. And so my grandmother and mother told me that they said after talking about a half hour together with the other ministers, they said, "Yes. Go ahead and do it. Get rid of them." I think they called them the Canaanites. "Get rid of the Canaanites, wicked people," which was the Pequot Indians. So they did. They threw torches and put it all aflame.
Eliza George's understanding of the Pequots as victims of history would turn out to be crucial. In her narrative of the Pequots' demise were the seeds of the twentieth-century reinvention of the tribe.
In 1898 in Connecticut, a man clubbed to death was unusual, even in as remote and notorious a place as the Western Pequot Indian reservation in Ledyard. The reservation was essentially a dense patch of dark forest and rock ledge inhabited by a dozen or so impoverished people who claimed descent from the original tribe. By the late nineteenth century, the reservation had become a refuge for a few closely related families of Pequot descent as well as various squatters and tramps. Poor whites, blacks, and others at the bottom of the New England social ladder gravitated to the reservation, often intermarrying with the Pequot descendants. The prevailing attitude of town authorities and state government was that there was by this time no Pequot tribe to speak of, only a sordid assortment of Pequot half-breeds, and reprobates of uncertain lineage and history. When townspeople in Ledyard discussed the reservation, if at all, it was with the smug sympathy of small-town New Englanders. It was the bad part of town.
Cyrus George, Eliya's father, was an impoverished half-Narragansett with uncertain amounts of Pequot, black, and white ancestry. Cy was well known to the barkeeps of the nearby provincial cities of Norwich and New London. Never boisterous or aggressive, he and his half-Pequot, half-Narragansett wife, Martha Hoxie George, and their seven children lived in a tumbledown cottage on the Ledyard reservation. His best friend was a worn-out nag who pulled his battered wagon along the dirt roads of the county.
Cy worked as a common laborer for Everett Whitford, a Yankee who ran a sawmill three miles away. Sawmills were a growth industry in Connecticut in the late 1890s. Marginal pastures were reverting to forestland as farmers abandoned them in the face of competition from the more productive farms of the Midwest. More forests meant more trees for sawmills, which produced lumber for the construction trades in burgeoning New York City and elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard. Cy was happy to work at Whitford's sawmill cutting and stacking lumber, even if it did keep him away from home for weeks at a time.
One Saturday in October 1898, Cy received his wages from Whitford, but instead of going straight back to the reservation he stopped in at the Red Wing Tavern, a local bar. After treating friends and acquaintances to drinks, Cy left the Red Wing at nine o'clock, carrying half a pint of whiskey for the road. On his way home, he passed a neighbor near the reservation who later recalled that Cy was "under the influence of liquor," but seemed "sober enough to talk rationally and handle his team without any trouble."
About a mile from home, Cy was hit on the head with a club or another blunt instrument, crushing his skull. In the struggle with his attacker, Cy broke his whip trying to save himself. Bleeding profusely from the head, however, Cy fell backward into his wagon. He came to rest on the floor of the wagon, drawn up in a fetal position in a pool of blood.
The horse pulled the wagon, with Cy inside, beyond the usual stopping place outside his family's cottage. That was where his children found their father's body. His wife Martha sent for a nearby farmer, who helped carry Cy's corpse into the house. Upon examining the body, the neighbor concluded that Cy had been struck with a club.
The State of Connecticut's overseer for the reservation, former Judge George Fanning of Ledyard, came the next day. "I cannot give any opinion on the man's method of death until after the inquest," he said. "The mark of the blow on the forehead can be plainly seen and looks as though he was struck with a club. The horse is gentle and does not kick, and I don't see how a man, even if he was drunk, could slip off the seat and cause death." The headline in the New London Day newspaper read, "PEQUOT INDIAN MURDERED. Brought Home Dead in Wagon by His Faithful Horse." A proper inquiry into the murder was never conducted. Confidential state records, however, said, "It is reported that Martha (Hoxie) George and Napoleon Langevin made way with Cyrus George while he was drunk.... The official report was that he died of heart disease and that the marks on his head and face were cause[d] by a fall."
Cyrus's widow was left with seven young children and the house on the reservation. Luckily, she paid neither rent nor property taxes because the state maintained the house and held the land in trust for the descendants of the Pequots. Martha George also received four dollars a month in public assistance.
Martha supplemented this assistance by renting out rooms to itinerant woodcutters working the forestland surrounding the reservation. She put her children up in the attic to make available four small bedrooms to let. Before Cy's death, Martha had struck up a close friendship with one of her boarders, a skilled lumberjack (he could cut four cords a day) named Napoleon Langevin, the man mentioned in the confidential state records. French-Canadian and a baker by training, he arrived at the reservation after his bakery in Rhode Island went bankrupt. Tall, white, and slim with a full mustache, Napoleon towered over small, dark-skinned Martha.
Within two months of Cyrus's death, Martha was pregnant with Napoleon's child. This caused whispers among her children, one of whom, eleven-year-old Amos, accused Napoleon of having committed the murder. Nothing came of the boy's allegations, and he soon left the reservation, never to return.
Napoleon proved a more reliable provider than had Cy. Napoleon and Martha went on to have four children. It was a happier marriage for her. Napoleon worked hard and abstained from liquor.
Excerpted from Hitting the Jackpot by Brett Duval Fromson Copyright © 2004 by Brett Duval Fromson.
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